Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cinematic Chicago

The Chicago Tribune recently had an article about the filming of Blues Brothers here in Chicago 30 years ago and how it broke the ice on a long period of reluctance of Chicago officials to allow movie-making in a very photogenic city.

There was a Straight Dope article last year that discussed this. Mayor Daley, the first one, was reluctant to allow the movie industry in because he hated the way they played up Chicago's gangster past. And it certainly didn't help that Haskell Wexler's 1968 movie "Medium Cool" used the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention as a backdrop to the movie, filming it as it happened. It wasn't the best portrayal of Chicago.

After the "Blues Brothers" shoot, many movies were filmed in and around Chicago, including "The Untouchables," "Midnight Run," "Adventures In Babysitting," "Trains, Planes and Automobiles," "Ferris Buehler's Day Off" and many others. There was a time, though, that many of the industry's movies were filmed here in Chicago.

About three blocks from my home, at Irving and Western, the Selig Polyscope Movie Company once produced many of America's movies. It was founded in 1896 when magician and minstrel show operator William Selig began filming movies using his own photographic equipment (in order to avoid infringing on patents that Thomas Edison held for movie cameras).

In 1909, Selig pulled up stakes and became the first moviemaker to move to the Edendale district of Los Angeles, establishing that area as a moviemaking mecca. A car lot replaced the movie lot afterward-- but the lot was not done with cinema yet. More on that later.

There is one building left from Selig Polyscope. This building, now in what is now called the "St. Ben's" neighborhood, echoing a time when Chicago neighborhoods were named after the Parish they were in. It would have been at the southeast corner of the movie lot. It was renovated a few years ago and is now a residential building.

A closer look, at the doorway of the building reveals its old identity as part of the Selig Polyscope Company; if you look above the doorway, you can see the "S" for Selig.

Around the same time, George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson formed Essanay Studios in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood in 1907. The old buildings are still there, just a few blocks from where I go to nursing school, themselves in use now by a St. Augustine's College, on the 1300 block of West Argyle.

The handsome brick building next door was used as housing for movie casts and crew. I've been in the building many times; my best friend Jim lived there for nearly ten years.

In 1914, Essanay succeeded in luring Charlie Chaplin away from Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios, and Chaplin produced 14 comedies at both the Argyle Street studio and a facility had in suburban Niles, Illinois, including Chaplin's classic "The Tramp." Many of the "Bronco Billy" Westerns were filmed at Essanay (in addition to being filmed on location in actual Western locales.)

Reportedly, Chaplin did not like Essanay Studios, and left after only a short time. Essanay survived in various incarnations for about another decade, until being absorbed by Warner Brothers in 1925. The building was used by producer Norman Wilding to produce industrial films until St. Augustine College purchased the building.

In the meantime, the old Selig Polyscope Company lot was not done with having its cinematic day in the sun. It appeared in two movies in its car lot incarnation.

In Chicago native Michael Mann's 1981 movie "Thief," the main character, "Frank," played by James Caan, is a jewel thief who owns a tavern (potrayed by the Green Mill, which is still there, and was once the hangout of Al Capone) and a car lot-- portrayed by the car lot at 3939 North Western; the picture near the top of the post, which I took a couple of years ago, is the sign from that lot. It's since been removed in order to make room for the condos that have been built on the location.

The sign did make it into one more movie before its demise: the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene at the beginning of Penelope Spheeris' 1992 movie Wayne's World. Here's that clip-- look for it right after Phil, the "puking" guy gets in the car.

I wonder if Mr. Mann and Ms. Speeris knew the history of that particular location when they chose to include it in their movies.


SkylersDad said...

Outstanding trivia and scene!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What a fascinating post! I love urban history and now have even more of an itching to make it to Chicago sometime to see your incredible city for myself.

Churlita said...

Very cool and interesting post. I have a cousin who paints movie sets in Chicago.

The biggest movie filmed around us was Field of Dreams. I guess The Crazies was filmed here last Summer, but it wasn't that big of a film.

Random Thinker said...

Great post. Chicago has so much personality. Midwest warmth with big city hustle and bustle mixed in. Detroit has been dipping its toes in the movie making industry. But I think they use us mostly for post-apocolyptic backgrounds.